The trick to finding a good place to eat starts with not being distracted by appearances. For example, there's a little place in in Oakley, Ut that I really want to be great. It looks like it would be the perfect place to stop for a burger, or something else bad for you, but looks are deceiving. It's not that the food is bad—it's just not very good.
I've stopped there a few times, hoping that the last mediocre meal was a fluke, but it wasn't. Despite the wonderful atmosphere and the perfect location in the little town of Oakley, the Road Island Diner just isn't a place I would recommend for a lunch stop.
I have a couple of friends, who on every ride, always ask, "Where are we eating?"
The lunch stop has become an important part of the ride. And, when we're riding in familiar territory, knowing where to stop for something to eat is pretty easy. Probably like you, we have our favorite places. It gets a little more complicated when we're in unfamiliar territory.
A few years ago, I stumbled upon a book by William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways. I think Sue's brother Paul recommended it to me. The blue highways on old maps were the two-lane roads—the old roads people used before the Interstate. He chronicled a road trip around the country in an old Ford Econoline van, sticking to the blue roads, and shared his insight into the places he liked to stop on these quite roads to get a bite to eat.
He would look for old calendars. He figured if there were old calendars on the wall, the diner had been around for a while. It's a good method and I've found it to ring true, but you don't know until you've gone inside. Is there a way to tell a good place to eat from the saddle, while your riding through town?
I think there is.
As a boy, my grandparents lived in Ft. Duchesne in rural Eastern Utah. My grandma was a good cook and my grandpa seldom went out to dinner. For him to go out, the food had to be at least as good as what he could get at home (but it better be better). In the rural parts of the country, away from the Interstate and the restaurant chains, I don't think he was alone. The locals might not have a very sophisticated palette (I know I certainly don't), but they do know good food.
So how do you know? Pickup trucks.
In rural America, the locals drive pickup trucks. If there are a lot of pickups outside, you can rest assured the food inside is going to be good. And once you get inside, in addition to looking for calendars, look around for pictures of Ronald Reagan and John Wayne. A picture of the Duke says they've been around for a long time.
The place might even look a little sketchy from the outside, the food definitely won't be health food, and you'll probably have a server who won't take any guff, but the chicken fried steak, the hot roast beef sandwich, or the bacon and eggs will be about as good as you've ever had. I love roadhouse food. I have a friend who says, "I don't want anything fancy, just brown and warm."
I don't go quite that far.
A few years ago I was riding through the little town of Fairview, Utah around lunch time and decided it was time for lunch. Heading north on Hwy 89 I noticed six or seven pickup trucks parked in front of the Home Plate Diner, so I pulled over and went inside.
I asked the waitress if the hot beef sandwich was good (because that's usually a pretty good indicator), and she said, "Yeah, but everybody eats breakfast here."
"What breakfast do they eat?" I asked—and then I ordered it. I wasn't disappointed.
Now, whenever I'm someplace new, I ask the waitress, "What do you like on the menu?" It's usually just what the doctor ordered.
Don't be deceived. A lot of SUVs or European luxury sedans don't mean the food is good. A beautiful exterior, neon signs, or a lot of RVs in the lot don't mean it's good either.
In Carmel Junction, at a crossroads leading into Zion National Park, is another place I want to love, but isn't anything to write home about. It has a long and charming history and is in the perfect spot to stop and top off the tank of your motorcycle and satisfy the rumbly in your tumbly before you head into Zion or continue on to Kanab, but like the Road House Diner, the atmosphere just isn't enough.
Their famous "Ho-Made Pies" are good but not great and lunch will be mediocre to OK. You'll see lots of SUVs, RVs, and motorcycles fooled by the fact the place is busy, but you'll likely be disappointed.
Look for the pickup trucks. Eat where the locals eat and you'll have a great meal as you listen to the farmers talk about their irrigation turn, farm equipment, and other friendly BS they share amongst themselves. Ask the waitress, "What are they eating?" And you won't be disappointed.